How to Achieve Your Goals by Redefining Your Identity

Fill in the Blank by Darkmatter

Your self-identity is more malleable than you would think.

“If you fall in love with the process, the results come easy.” – Unattributed

I’m not sure who said that first – I’ve heard it attributed to about 50 people including Arnold Schwarzenegger – but it really doesn’t matter because it’s good wisdom. If you stress out over the results too much reaching your goal becomes more difficult, but if you can fall in love with the process that will get you there you’ll find yourself reaching your goal without even thinking about it. So how do we make ourselves fall in love with processes? Easy.

By redefining our identities.

You Are What You Do, And You Do What You Are

I know that sounds like an empty fortune cookie-esque statement at best and self-contradictory at worst, but bear with me for a minute here. The fact is, who you are is largely defined by your habits. What you do in a day really makes up the majority of your identity.

For example, if you spend your whole day in school attending classes and doing homework in the evening, those actions define you as a student or if you spend hours and hours every day playing video games those actions define you as a gamer. Now these aren’t exclusive categories, and I’m not going to go into discussions of stereotypes and self-identification and all that either, but a lot of it comes down to how you view yourself as a person.

Now it should be noted that either the behavior or the identity can come first and they’re self-reinforcing. That is, you think of yourself as a gamer because you play video games all the time, and because you think of yourself as a gamer you do what you think a gamer should do and play video games all the time. Additionally it should be noted there are varying levels of personal choice involved in the establishment of these identities – you have a lot more choice to not be a gamer than you do to not be a student for example due to compulsory schooling.

Alright, so our actions influence our self-identities and our identities influence our actions and there are instances where we can directly influence both via our own conscious decisions.

So why is this important to achieving goals?

Because our self-identities are an extremely strong psychological influence on our actions. If you strongly self-identify as a vegan it would be difficult for you to force yourself to eat meat and conversely if you strongly identify as a meat lover it would be difficult for you to go without meat for an extended period of time.

Remember the quote up top? The best way to achieve a goal effortlessly is to fall in love with doing the small things you need to do to get there. If you love working out, you’ll get fit whether you want to or not. If your goal is to learn to play guitar and you love practicing so much that you want to do it all the time, you’ll find yourself a great guitarist before you know it. Now, forming habits and falling in love with an activity are difficult – particularly if conflicts with our current self-identities. By tinkering with your self-identity you can not only remove this conflict but instill a strong psychological pressure to do the thing you need to do on a regular basis to reach your goal.

Act Like the Person You Wish You Were

So how do you go about redefining your self-image? The best way is to do it gradually.

Using myself as an example, I used to strongly self-identify as a fat guy. To be fair, I was a fat guy – but I let that thinking define a large part of who I considered myself to be. As a result, I did what I thought were ‘fat guy’ things. I ate a ton, prided myself on being able to finish ridiculous portions of things, and expressed a general dislike of exercise.

Now, I also really loved parkour and martial arts. That meant that I really didn’t want to be a fat guy. The problem was it was such an entrenched part of my identity it was hard to force myself to engage in the behaviors necessary to actually be able to do all the things I wanted to do. I needed to get fit, but my habits made it hard for me to train and easy to eat tons of junk.

It wasn’t until I really started thinking of myself as a ‘fitness guy’ that I started building positive exercise habits. From there it compounded upon itself until I got to where I am now – a personal trainer who absolutely loves to train. Being a personal trainer is such a large part of my self-identity now it’s as difficult to not train as it used to be to train when I thought of myself as a fat guy.

Another good example comes from starting this blog. It was extremely hard for me at the beginning to develop the habit of writing on a regular schedule. I had a lot to say and really wanted to write – but I just couldn’t make a habit out of it.

Then I forced myself to start thinking of myself as a writer. What do writers do? They write! All the time, or at least everyday. I kept reminding myself that I was a writer, and that as a writer I needed to write something, that was what I did.

So everyday, being a writer and all, I’d sit down and write something. Maybe a paragraph, maybe a post, whatever. The point was that I wrote every single day because that was just what a writer did. Before long that developed into a strong habit, and then further reinforced my self-identification as a writer. “After all,” I could say, “look how much I’ve written over the past month! I must be a writer.”

The trick is to figure out who you want to be, and then act like that’s who you already are.

If you want to be the girl who speaks ten languages, figure out what that girl would do everyday (study, talk with language partners, watch foreign language TV) and start doing it. If you want to be the guy who’s really great at martial arts, figure out what that guy would do everyday (practice, practice and probably more practice) and then get to it. The sooner you start pretending to be the person you wish you were, the sooner you’ll wake up one morning to find that’s who you really are.

So what do you think? Have you ever tried getting to your goals by changing your identity? Do you think it would be too hard for you to pull off? Let us know in the comments.

Photo Credit: Darkmatter

6 Excellent Reasons Why We Don’t Own a TV

Garbage Day by TJDewey

Sorry TV, we just don’t need you anymore.

When meeting new people most aren’t that surprised by our desire to travel the world, few are daunted by our outspoken rejection of the broken corporate lifestyle and most aren’t put off by the fact that we eat like cavemen – but there is one thing about us that consistently shocks people.

We don’t own a TV.

I guess it’s telling of the hold that television has on us culturally that, of all the ways in which we lead our lives down the path of non-conformity, it’s the absence of a flashing advertisement box that most people find inconceivable.

So why don’t we own one? I think Jonathan Fields Milburn of The Minimalists answers that question best saying, “Because I’d watch it. A lot.” Just in case that isn’t good enough for you though, I’ve put together a list of six reasons why we think owning a TV is a terrible idea.

1. Time

I have to credit my friends Jason and David for making the time thing click in my brain. In high school they were both crazy about the show 24. At the time it was considered really clever that it was one full day of 24 one hour episodes. When they explained it to me, I realized that meant that if you never miss an episode, you’re losing an entire 24 hour day to vegetating in front of the television.

That realization was a wake-up call for me, but as it turns out it gets much worse.

According to Nielsen in 2010 the average American watches five hours of television per day. Five hours. If you add all of that together that means you’ll spend 35 hours in front of the TV each week, about 150 hours each month and 1,825 hours each year.

So if you’re an average TV watcher every year you lose 76 full days to TV. About two months out of every year go solely to watching TV. Assuming an average lifespan that comes out to at least 12.5 years of your life sitting in front of the TV.

I’ll understand if you just threw up a little.

Twelve and a half years is a complete lifetime for some people. To think that sheer amount of time could be spent on something as wasteful as TV is mind-boggling.

2. Money

Having a TV is expensive.

Beyond the initial cost of the actual television itself – which can be substantial if your ego demands you have the latest greatest HD flatscreen – there are all the ancillary costs to think about. There’s cable to pay for, premium movie channels, DVD or Blu-Ray players, a theater style sound system, movie rentals and purchases, even the electricity cost of having all those things (made words by the fact that TVs and cable boxes are notorious vampire appliances sucking up power even when turned ‘off’).

Add to that the fact that according to another report by Nielsen the average household had more TVs than people and you have a substantial initial investment followed by nearly as substantial recurring costs. Is it seriously worth it?

You could easily save $5,000 on the initial investment (I’ve seen people spend more than that on a single TV or sound system, so it’s a reasonable estimate) and then a good $1,000 or so each year on those incidental costs. Cable alone here in Cincinnati can run around $600 per year, and that’s not counting movie rentals premium channels or electricity.

I can think of tons of things I would rather spend an extra $600 a year on than something that wastes all my time.

3. Freedom from Advertising

In 2011 $72 Billion was spent on television advertising. That’s more than was spent in Internet, radio, newspaper and magazine ads combined. You might say they don’t affect you, but they do.

With an average of 8.5 minutes of commercials per half hour of television, that means you’ll spend twenty two days of your life, nearly a month, just watching advertisements.

Now I’m not necessarily saying that all advertising is evil, but in most cases it’s not necessary. It’s not meaningful. Though they are trying to persuade you otherwise, advertising is not going to substantially improve your life.

So why spend almost a month of your existence watching it?

4. Increased Creativity and Intelligence

Doing creative things or being exposed to creative activities directly correlates to being more creative overall. That means that engaging in a passive activity like watching television is likely to do little to nothing to help make you a more creative person. If you have goals like ours of pursuing a life based around achieving freedom by creating something meaningful and helpful to others, than damaging your creativity is like shooting yourself in the foot.

You may argue that some TV shows themselves are creative enough to be inspiring, but let’s be honest – 90% of what’s on TV is just a regurgitation of the same old tropes and themes. That’s not even counting the countless hours of reruns people sit through on a regular basis.

TV may also be causing you to miss out on the opportunity to be more intelligent. Studies (1, 2) suggest that reading has a direct positive affect on your intelligence. When you read a lot, you become smarter.

Conversely, other studies (1, 2) suggest that TV watching correlates strongly with decreased intelligence and poor educational performance.

In other words, people who read a lot are on average significantly smarter than those who watch a lot of TV.

Why spend five hours each day damaging your mind when you could be improving yourself?

5. Improved Sleep

Even though it’s frequently repeated that the best way to get a good night’s sleep is to stop any form of electronic entertainment at least an hour before bed, around 75% of people still report watching TV right up to when they go to sleep.

Is it any wonder than that terrible sleep quality, and all the physical problems associated with it, are a common woe in our society?

People who shut the television off more than an hour before bed consistently report an easier time getting to sleep, feeling more rested upon waking and having deeper, uninterrupted sleep patterns. That’s not even counting the habit of many to stay up late and sacrifice hours of sleep every night just to watch a specific show.

Considering most people already suffer from a severe lack of sleep it’s ridiculous to compound the problem with TV.

6. Higher Quality Relationships

When you’re not spending most of your family time silently transfixed on your flat screen an interesting thing tends to happen. You actually have conversations.

When you remove TV from the picture you have five more hours everyday to actually connect with your loved ones, or even to go out and meet new friends – something you can’t do sitting on your couch watching American Idol.

Don’t argue that you have to watch TV to be able to discuss all the popular shows with friends and coworkers. People have been having conversations just fine for all the millenia that preceded the invention of television. You’ll manage. Besides, the thought of spending five hours everyday on something that adds no value to my life just so I can spend more time talking about that thing that adds no value to my life makes me want to slam my head into the wall.

It’s better to spend time creating meaningful, valuable relationships than it is to sit in front of a box and drool.

Common Excuses

As I mentioned before, TV is deeply ingrained in our cultural identity. As a result, suggestions to eliminate it are often met with fervent opposition or even, on one memorable occasion, genuine outrage.

That knee-jerk reaction tends to cause people to scramble for excuses for why a television is an essential part of their existence the loss of which would render their lives bleak and meaningless. Let’s look at some of the more common ones.

  • TV entertains me / makes me happy / relaxes me, therefore those 5 hours each day are not wasted. – At first glance this sounds like a valid argument, particularly because who am I to say what you should judge as a worthwhile expenditure of your own time. The thing is if you take an honest look at some of the other things you could be doing, you’ll find there are plenty of activities that are equally entertaining, joyful or relaxing that have genuine positive benefits for your life and none of the damaging effects of constant TV viewing. While I can’t make the decision for you I’m certain if you made an effort you could easily find better things to fill that time.
  • I only watch educational programs / documentaries. – Nice try, but even prolonged exposure to educational TV in children had an overall negative correlation with intelligence. Comparatively reading, including fiction, had a strong positive correlation on intelligence. Honestly, while there are some quality educational programs out there, the majority is Ancient Aliens, Ghost Hunters, Doomsday Preppers and similar drivel.
  • I have to see what happens on [insert popular show here]! – You don’t. You really don’t. I understand that people often form extremely strong psychological bonds with characters on TV. That’s what the show’s writers, producers and actors are going for. In reality the world is not going to end if you miss your favorite show. Your life may actually improve because of it.
  • I need it for the news. – Television is easily the worst medium for getting the daily news. Even excluding the fact that some national news networks have shown to actually leave people less informed than people who don’t watch news at all (*cough* Fox *cough*), it’s an overall inefficient medium. If I want to know what the latest developments on the Syria massacres are I can either sit through four hours of banal election coverage and punditry until they decide to run the story I’m waiting for, or I can just get online and find it. TV news forces you to sit through all the fluff for the stories you want, if your goal is to become informed it’s the very worst way to do it.

How to Kick the TV Habit

So you’ve come around and decided I have a good point, but aren’t sure if you’re ready to sell your flatscreen yet? The best way to do it is to ease into it. Commit to a full week with all your televisions unplugged and stashed away in a closet somewhere. Once you see a week’s not so bad, try thirty days.

Before long, you’ll find not only do you not miss it, when you do go back you’ll miss all the great things you did in its absence. Few things make you feel like you’ve got no time to get anything done than wasting that time on TV.

Honestly, once you’ve kicked the addiction you don’t have to completely swear off TV or media altogether. TV and movies done right and treated as a social experience can be a great way to connect with people. One of the best movies Caroline and I ever saw was the second Twilight movie – not because the movie was actually good, but because we went on a Wednesday on a school night to the 10:30 pm showing and had the theater to ourselves to play Statler and Waldorf.

For all the reasons I gave here, I really don’t think TV is pure evil. I like TV, just like everyone else. It’s the addiction that causes most of the problems.

We do subscribe to Netflix, and watch occasional things on Hulu for free (with AdBlock turned on mind you). Now, before you cry hypocrite, it’s an extremely rare thing. We go to great lengths to make sure that our TV time doesn’t cause a detriment to the rest of our lives and average about a single half hour show a night and the occasional movie ever other weekend or so.

They key is finding the right balance.

If you are going to try to kick the habit I would suggest going a full month with no TV – including things like Netflix – before slowly reintroducing it in moderation. We’ve fallen victim to compulsive marathons of shows we really like in the past, and it doesn’t help if you’re replacing five hours of TV with five hours of Netflix.

Do you think you can toss out your TV? Have you actually done it, or tried to do it? Do you have any other suggestions, or do you think I’m out of my mind? Leave a comment!

Photo Credit: TJDewey

How to Memorize Phrases and Vocabulary Instantly Using Music

Music by Brandon Giesbrecht

Music can be an extremely effective memorization tool.

There are a lot of things that can seem daunting for the new language learner, but few things have a reputation for being so tedious and time consuming as learning vocab.

While I’ve talked in the past about some of the things you can do to learn words from your environment, easily memorize new words, or even quickly memorize a whole list in order, I want to share one more method I like for memorizing whole sentences in just a few seconds – singing.

Tunes as Memory Hooks

I have to credit Benny from Fluent In 3 Months for the original idea for this technique. (If you’re learning a new language and haven’t been there, I highly encourage you to go check it out now.)

If you’ve ever noticed how quickly you can memorize lyrics to songs you like, or how sometimes an unwanted tune complete with lyrics can get lodged firmly in your brain without your consent – this technique works on the very same principle.

There’s something about our brains that makes us hardwired to latch onto tunes and hold onto them forever. While occasionally this can lead to frustration and self-induced head injuries (such as after accidentally hearing “Mmm Bop”) it can also be used to our advantage by hooking information we want to memorize onto those catchy tunes.

How to Memorize with Music

  1. Choose something to memorize – This technique works best for sentences, rather than individual words. This makes it really useful for people on the plane over who need to flash memorize important phrases. For our purposes we’ll choose “Where’s the bathroom?” in Japanese which is トイレはどこですか or “Toire wa doko desu ka”.
  2. Choose a tune that fits the sentence – Depending on the length of the sentence and the number of syllables, you’ll want to find a tune that has the right beat to it that is nice and catchy. Most kids tunes or nursery rhyme songs work wonderfully. The “desu” in “Toire wa doko desu ka” is pronounced more like “dess”, so a good fit given the number of syllables in this case would be the tune “Mary Had a Little Lamb“.
  3. Swap the lyrics for your sentence – Put your target language sentence that you want to memorize in wherever it fits in place of the original lyrics. In our case, we’re replacing the “Mary had a little lamb” part with our “Toire wa doko desu ka”. For the “Little lamb, little lamb” refrain part we’re putting in “Doko desu ka, doko desu ka”. We’ll get to why in a second.
  4. Sing it – Now that you’ve got your new lyrics, sing your tune! You don’t have to do it out loud if you you’re in public, but I think it helps a little. Just keep singing it over and over again in your head and pretty soon it’ll be so etched into your memory so well you’ll never have to worry about forgetting it again. While you’re singing it helps to associate some image with the tune to help you remember what the meaning of the sentence is. After all it doesn’t help if you’ve memorized “Toire wa doko desu ka” but don’t remember what it means.
  5. Refine the song – Once you’ve got the basic tune down you can sometimes use parts to reinforce grammar concepts to use in other sentences. That’s why we made the refrain part “doko desu ka, doko desu ka” which on its own means “Where is it?” Knowing that, you can change the object at the beginning with each verse. You can start with “Toire wa doko desu ka, doko desu ka, doko desu ka” then move on to “Toshokan wa doko desu ka, doko desu ka, doko desu ka” (図書館はどこですか? Where is the library?) for the next verse and so on. You can often even fit words with more syllables than really fit, such as “toshokan”, if you’re fiddle with the pacing of the song a bit.
  6. Use your sentences – When you need to ask where the bathroom is in Japanese, you’ll have no problem remembering how because that tune should pop right into your head. You don’t have to ask it melodically, but it’s easy to memorize that way. In the above example, because of how the “Where is it / doko desu ka” part is separated out you can easily apply new vocab you learn into that sentence structure to ask where something is, the song should have taught you to put it right before “doko desu ka”.

It’s as easy as that! While this technique is definitely directly useful to people who are already on their way to a foreign land and need to pick up some survival phrases quickly, it can also be used in general to memorize new sentences. I’ve even found practicing the sentences in song helps people start bridging the gap between broken, contemplative speech patterns and truly fluid, conversational delivery.

Have you used this technique in the past? Do you have any additions or tips to make it work better? Share them with us in the comments!

Photo Credit: Brandon Giesbrecht

Meditation 101: Meditation for Beginners

At the Feet of an Ancient Master by Premasagar

Though it may help, an ancient tree in the serene wilderness is not necessary for successful meditation.

There are few disciplines that have as numerous and as far reaching benefits as meditation. Beyond the psychological benefits of promoting a sense of centeredness, well-being and clarity of thought it also has numerous physiological benefits – relaxation, lowered blood pressure, reduced stress hormone release and a lowered heart rate just to name a few. In addition, no one has ever shown meditation to have any negative side-effects.

For all of the proven benefits of meditation, most of them achievable with an investment of only five to ten minutes per day, why isn’t everyone meditating?

The most common answer people give is, “I just don’t know how to get started meditating.” That’s understandable. There’s a lot of mystique in modern Western culture surrounding the practice of meditation and that can make it appear strange, esoteric or even daunting. Thankfully, that’s all just misconception. You can start meditating today with these simple steps and in no time at all be reaping all those great benefits.

Meditation Misconceptions

One of the biggest barriers keeping people from trying meditation is the air of spiritualism that surrounds it in popular culture. While for many people meditation is a genuinely spiritual practice, it doesn’t actually have to be.

Regardless of your particular thoughts on spirituality, the primary psychological and physiological benefits of meditation stem purely from chemical reactions to the induced state of calm and relaxation and the mental exercise of learning how to focus on a single thing without allowing your mind to wander or fall prey to distractions.

In essence, meditation is mental exercise. Much like physical exercise it not only teaches you a skill but also creates physical changes within your body.

The sheer volume of different kinds of meditation also can turn away people who are absolute beginners. We can continue the comparison above between meditation and physical exercise in that the word ‘meditation’, like the word ‘exercise’, can mean a variety of different practices.

Just like the deadlift and the bench press work different areas of the body but with the common overall goal of making you stronger, different meditation styles work on different areas of your mind with the general overall goal of improving your thinking and self-control.

It would take forever to go through all the different styles of meditation, and this is a beginner’s guide anyway so I don’t really think it’s necessary. If you’re just getting started and don’t know what to do, the best form of meditation to start with is concentration meditation.

Concentration Meditation for Beginners

Concentration meditation is probably the most basic form of meditation that still gives you all of the psychological and physical benefits most people are looking for – namely reduced stress, clarity of thought and improved focus. It’s also the easiest to do.

The basic idea behind concentration meditation is to work on focusing on a single thought, sound or object at the exclusion of all other things. This is harder than it sounds, particularly with the demands of modern living and constant barrage of input from technology we’re programmed to always be bouncing around from thought to thought in our heads. Some people call this ‘Monkey Mind’, and this meditation technique will teach you how to fix it.

Bear in mind that, while relaxing, meditation is work. You’re training your mind, so take it slow at first. Starting out with two to three minutes of quiet meditation each morning and working up from there is a good way to ease into it.

So how do you get started?

How to Meditate

  1. Find a quiet, comfortable place to meditate – It’s extremely important that you find a place where you won’t be disturbed for the duration of your meditation. The purpose is to learn to ignore distractions, but that doesn’t mean you want screaming kids, buzzing cell phones or a blaring TV in the background. I’m not saying it has to be beneath a waterfall in the wilderness either, but it should be somewhere in your home where you know you won’t be disturbed.
  2. Settle into a comfortable, relaxed position – Contrary to popular imagery, you don’t need to be sitting in full lotus on the floor to meditate. You can sit however you’re comfy, in a chair, on your bed, you can even lay down if you’d like. I would recommend making sure to sit with good posture and a natural curve to your back – not slouching – but other than that it’s most important that you’re comfortable. I personally prefer not to do it lying down because I tend to fall asleep, but you can try it that way as well.
  3. Choose something to fixate on completely – What you choose can be anything, and can involve any of your senses. If you are a complete beginner an easy one to start with is to focus all your attention on your breathing. Don’t try to control it. Breathe naturally but focus all your attention there as you breathe in and out. Some options involving other senses are to fixate on the flame of a candle, to speak a mantra or make a sound such as the iconic ‘Om’, to listen to the clicks of a metronome or even to just repeat the word ‘one’ over and over in your mind. The idea is to find something that you can focus 100% of your attention on the exclusion of all other things.
  4. When your mind wanders, gently refocus it – Inevitably, your mind will wander to something else. Thoughts will pop up that yell for your attention. You’ll worry about your work, or some other problem. You’ll start thinking about needing to buy more candles. Something will come up. Instead of fighting it, try to acknowledge the thought and then send it on its way. Once you’ve done that immediately refocus on whatever it is you’re working to focus on. I like to think of the other thoughts as little paper boats floating by on a stream in front of me. I acknowledge their existence, then send them on down stream and pay them no more mind.
  5. When your mind wanders, gently refocus it, again – Your mind will continue to want to wonder, but keep at it. If you’re like me you might even have the thought of, “My thoughts keep bouncing all over, this is impossible, I can’t focus at all”, but treat that thought like all the others and keep going. Understand that meditation is a skill and will take practice. In time these wayward thoughts will come less frequently and eventually you’ll have no problem turning on your laser focus.
  6. After your time is up, stretch and shake it off – This step is optional if you decide you prefer to meditate before bed, but I find I prefer morning meditation and this step really helps pull me back to be ready for the day. Either way, when your meditation time is up let yourself come down out of it gradually and naturally with a positive attitude. Even if you don’t feel it yet, you’ve accomplished something by working on your focus and you should end each session with a smile and a well-earned sense of achievement.

The best way to start using this meditation technique is with two or three minutes spent practicing each morning. Like physical exercise it can be difficult to stick to, or more work than you originally thought, so it’s best to start slow.

As you get more used to it and start developing it into more of a habit you can increase your time to five minutes, then ten and so on until you reach a length of practice that fits your needs. Once you’ve mastered this form of meditation you can also start moving on to more advanced forms if you’d like, although honestly I find the concentration meditation to be one of my favorites and one of the most beneficial.

Even if you keep it to five minutes every morning, this routine will go a long way toward improving your focus and drastically reducing your stress – two things I think nearly everyone could benefit from.

Once you’ve tried them, or if you’ve tried these techniques in the past, leave a comment and tell us how it went! I’m also happy to answer any questions or clarifications that might come up. Happy meditating!

Photo Credit: Premasagar

Learning Languages with Duolingo

Duolingo Home Screen

Duolingo's lessons are laid out in a convenient skill tree

We recently were invited to give Duolingo – a new online language learning system – a try during their trial period before they’re open to everyone (their official launch will be on June 19th, 2012). After using it for a while, here’s what we think.

Duolingo first caught our attention because of its unique concept. The site’s goal isn’t just to teach people languages, but to crowdsource the translation of the Internet into as many languages as possible. By having language learners learn and practice by translating actual sentences from the web the content gets translated and people learn – everybody wins.

The best part of this method is the language learners aren’t the customers, they’re the workers. The real customers are companies and sites who want their content translated. That guarantees that as a language learner the site will always be free, since you’re paying with your time instead of your money.

So how well does it work?

The Pros of Duolingo

  • It’s Free – I know I mentioned this one already, but it’s a big selling point for me. Duolingo is totally free. It’s not free in a frustrating ad supported way either, as of right now there are no ads and no paid premium version they try to push you into. Since their real customers aren’t the users, you get to learn for free.
  • They Make Language Learning a Game – The lessons are presented in a skill tree. As you master each skill it unlocks the skills below it. Each lesson earns you points which go toward leveling you up in that language. You also earn puzzle pieces for translating sentences, though it’s unclear what these do at this point. In each lesson you have so many hearts, for every mistake one heart is lost and if you lose them all you have to try the lesson over again.
  • Duolingo Lesson Complete

    Each lesson is a game, and you can share your success on Facebook and Twitter

  • It Keeps You Accountable – While there isn’t as robust of a social aspect as Fitocracy or some other gameified personal development programs, you can follow friends to keep on top of their progress and act as extra motivation. It also integrates with Facebook and Twitter allowing you to be very public about your language learning. If that’s not enough, Duolingo can even e-mail you everyday if you hit a certain time without logging in to study.
  • Duolingo Grammar Correction

    Duolingo gently corrects your grammar mistakes

  • Integrated Grammar – Most of the lessons offer a little bit of explicit grammar explanation at the beginning, but it’s entirely optional. I didn’t bother with any of them. Instead, the lessons work the grammar into the practice. For instance I chose to do German and I’ve learned ‘Ich trinke‘, ‘Du trinkst‘ and ‘Er trinkt‘ all without slamming my head into a desk covered in conjugation tables. By learning through sentences you pick up the grammar intuitively rather than through memorization.
  • You Learn Through Use – Duolingo’s system gives you practice translating sentences both from and into the target language, copying down spoken sentences for listening comprehension, speaking through the microphone and identifying pictures in the target language. The questions are varied enough that you get experience reading, writing, listening and speaking.
  • Duolingo Translation

    Duolingo's interface allows you to peek at the translation of any word

  • It’s User Friendly – The interface is fun and easy to use. You can quickly flip between languages if you’re feeling like learning several at once and navigating around is a breeze. If you make a minor mistake like a typo it generally recognizes it and tells you, but doesn’t take a heart away. Additionally you can mouse over any word to see its definition – though it will chide you for peeking if it’s a word you’ve already been introduced to.
  • Immediate Access to Native Content – Duolingo lets you jump right in and translate actual native content from the web with the first lesson. Each translation section is picked to have vocab or use grammar points from the lesson you just completed, though they often have plenty of new vocab as well. This is a great resource since it’s important to have exposure to genuine native material as early and often as possible.
Duolingo Skip Lesson

If you're already an advanced learner you have the option of skipping ahead

The Cons of Duolingo

  • No Real Conversation – If you want to be able to speak a language fluently, the most important thing in your language learning is actually speaking with native speakers of your target language. There really is no substitute for it and currently Duolingo has no way of allowing you to converse with any native speakers.
  • Heavy Focus on Translation – I realize that translation of things is the primary goal of the site, but there’s a little bit too heavy of a focus on translation and not enough on producing novel content. The user isn’t tasked enough to try and put together sentences that they’ve never heard before, which is a key skill in achieving fluency in a language.
  • Limited Language Availability – This is a minor point, and one they’re working on, but currently only Spanish, French, German and English (for Spanish speakers) are available. They’ve said they plan to add Italian, Portuguese and Chinese (presumably Mandarin) soon, but for now if you’re learning a language other than these, you’re out of luck.

Overall, Duolingo is a pretty good system for a getting a little extra practice learning a new language. It’s not perfect, and it definitely isn’t enough on it’s own to bring you to fluency, but it’s a good start and a good way to keep up practicing while having some fun.

The main value in Duolingo comes from the fact that it’s completely free. In my opinion were they ever to charge for access to Duolingo I wouldn’t use it. It’s fun and helpful, but I couldn’t justify paying for it.

My advice for language learners would still be to focus the majority of their efforts on practicing with a native speaker and immersing themselves in native content as often as possible. If you want to add in an hour or so each day of having fun earning some points on Duolingo, then go for it. It won’t be enough on its own but it’ll help add to your other efforts. The site will be open to the public in ten days, so if you’re learning one of the languages they offer go sign up!

Do you have any thoughts on Duolingo? Any other language learning sites you particularly like? Share them in the comments.

How Mario Kart 64 Taught Me the Key to Success

Mario Kart! Let's Go! by Pixteca

A wise guru indeed...

For me growing up there were three games that formed the Holy Trinity of the Nintendo 64: Super Mario 64, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, & Mario Kart 64.

Ok, so Starfox 64 and Super Smash Bros. 64 also deserve honorable mention, but Holy Quinary just sounds like a shrine to Sliders so we’ll stick with the Trinity.

Out of all those games, Mario Kart 64 easily had the biggest impression on me.

Why?

Because it taught me the secret to leading a happy, successful life.

Wisdom from the Road

Jump back a decade or so and there I am sitting in my room with friends racing full tilt around the Rainbow Road.

I was Yoshi – because we all know that Yoshi is the best – and I was losing. Badly.

Every lap I’d fought my way up to the front of the pack, and every time some catastrophic slip up had plummeted me back down to last. You should know, as an aside, that I did not handle frustration well as a child. By this point I was absolutely furious.

With each stupid turtle shell, each accidental hop off the edge into oblivion, each star-powered buffoon that blasted me out of the way I became increasingly agitated. I didn’t even notice that the more angry I got, the more I wanted to hurl my controller through the TV, the worse my racing got.

Finally, on the very last lap, something snapped.

Rather than give in to the substantial rage that had built inside me, I just let it all go. Maybe you could call it defeatism, but I think that sounds too negative. I realized at this point that I was at peace with whatever happened. I just didn’t really care anymore.

And you know what? My racing improved.

When before everything that could go wrong had been, now everything aligned perfectly. I was untouchable. I was in the zone.

I rocketed up to first like it was nothing and won the race. At first, I considered myself lucky. As time went on though I began to wonder if there was more to it than that.

I tested my theory out through more and more races and it held. The more agitated I got, the worse I played. The more detached I got, the better I played. At first I just thought learning to detach myself from worry and frustration over the outcome was just a handy trick to rock my friends on Mario Kart. Then I learned to apply it to the rest of my life.

Embracing Relaxation

When I made a conscious effort to do in the rest of my life what I did in Mario Kart – stop worrying and let things flow – I found that everything I did came easy to me.

No matter what it was, even things I had formerly had a really hard time with, everything always just seemed to work out in my favor. On the rare occasion things would still go wrong, it always seemed like it wasn’t so bad and some other opportunity would present itself as a result of the problem that was even better than the original.

The more I taught myself to relax and not worry, the more successful and happy my life became.

Everyone called me lucky, but I knew I was making my own luck.

How it Helps

This isn’t just anecdotal, studies have shown that people who are considered ‘lucky’ often are just benefiting from being more relaxed and mindful.

In Dr. Wiseman’s study referenced above participants were given newspapers and asked to count the number of photos in them. The group who considered themselves lucky correctly completed the task in a few seconds while the group who considered themselves unlucky took an average of two minutes.

What was the difference?

The people who considered themselves unlucky were almost always too stressed out and focused on the task of counting the photos to notice the headline inside that read “Stop Counting. There are 43 photographs in this newspaper.”

When you learn to let go of your worries you allow your relax and be observant. When you’re observant, you miss fewer opportunities.

Relaxing in this way also opens up the doors to intuition. It taps into a process akin to the Taoist concept of Wei Wu Weiaction without action.

Wei Wu Wei in very simple terms is being so attuned to the current moment that without effort you automatically take the most correct or beneficial action. It’s a topic that deserves volumes all on it’s own, but the best example is if you’ve ever been in ‘the groove’ or ‘the zone’ while playing a sport.

That feeling where everything is going right, when you’re no longer thinking about what you’re going to do you just act, that’s Wei Wu Wei. Most people that get pegged as ‘naturals’ in some activity or another are just people who are intuitively good at putting themselves in this state.

Being able to consciously put yourself in ‘the zone’ makes you act like you’re a natural at everything you set out to do.

How to Relax

Now some of you might be saying, “Wait, I am stressed all the time. You can’t expect me to just decide to not be stressed!”

It came naturally to me, but some people are just naturally high-strung. Caroline’s been learning how to de-stress and not worry so much ever since we met. Luckily, there are some techniques you can use.

  • Take a long deep breath – I know it’s kind of stereotypical, but that’s only because it works. Stopping to shut out the world long enough to take a deep breath helps get your attention off of whatever is stressing you. Breath control also triggers physiological responses that produce a calming effect.
  • Exist in the moment – When you’re taking that deep, slow breath focus all of your attention on it. Nothing else exists, there is no past, no future, there is only the experience of that breath. Understanding that the past is gone and the future doesn’t yet exist helps you focus on the present moment. When you do that, you find there’s no need to worry about the future anymore.
  • Accept the stress – If you’re still feeling stressed after doing some controlled breathing, confront that feeling. Acknowledge the fact that you’re stressed, and dismiss it. Tell yourself that you understand why you’re so stressed, but you don’t need to be anymore and let all those feelings drift away. It sounds like hippie stuff, but trust me – it works.
  • Face your fears – If you’re stressed out from worry or fear, and the realization that the future doesn’t exist and is nothing to be scared of hasn’t helped, play through the worst case scenario in your mind. Chances are, unless you’re going to literally die as a result of failure, the worst case scenario isn’t the end of the world. Once you see that even if everything fails you’ll still be fine, you can brush away the fear and be present enough in the moment to succeed.

These are just a few ways, there are even more involved methods like meditation, the point is just to get you started.

The more you teach yourself to let go of worry and stress and be present, mindful and relaxed the more successful and happy you’ll become. All because of a particularly enlightening game of Mario Kart.

Do you have any other tried and true methods for learning to let go of stress? Have you stumbled upon any other great truths while playing video games? Share them with us in the comments!

Photo Credit: Pixteca

3 Must-Have Fitness Apps

iPhone 4S by MattsMacintosh

One of these isn't required to get fit, but it definitely helps.

There are a lot of fitness apps out there. A whole lot. It’s not surprising given the wide proliferation of smart phones, but with so many options to choose from both paid and free, how do you know which fitness apps are really worth it?

We’ve narrowed the list down to three must-have apps. Unlike most fitness app reviewers, we don’t just look at whether the app does what it says it will or has boatloads of features. Instead we think the things that make a really fantastic fitness app are all about fun, motivation and convenience. They have to make working out something you enjoy, motivate you to go out and do it and be as convenient and intuitive as possible to let you use them whenever and wherever you need to.

1. Fitocracy

Fitocracy Logo

Fitocracy - A great way to get more awesome.

Fitocracy easily wins the number one spot on our list. If you have even the tiniest inkling of geekiness or competitiveness, you will love Fitocracy. It turns your fitness program into a game. Every time you log exercises you earn points to level up. Just like a video game there are Quests to complete and Achievements you can earn that represent huge milestones in your fitness journey. The app is free for iPhone, if you’re an Android user there’s no version out for you yet – but don’t let that stop you from using the site, you’ll be happy you did.

Why do we love it so much?

In addition to being free and convenient, it really makes working out fun. There is a serious motivating factor to the quests and achievements and few things make you want to go workout more than knowing you’re just a few hundred points from leveling up. What we love even more is the fantastic community that has grown on the site. If you’re feeling competitive they’ve recently added PvP battles to make that community even more motivating. You can get the app in the iTunes store or go the Fitocracy website to sign up and get it.

2. Zombies, Run!

Zombies Run Logo

What could be more motivating than zombies?

Making the second place spot is Zombies, Run! This app follows the same gamifaction principles Fitocracy does, but with a twist. In Zombies, Run! you take on the role of Runner 5, a scout/resource gatherer for one of the few human colonies that has survived the zombie apocalypse. Each mission is played through your headphones in-between your music as you run. Along each run you can pick up random items to distribute to the base once you get back and grow the township. Random zombie chases will keep you pushing yourself, don’t run fast enough and you may have to drop a precious item to distract the zombies.

Why do we love it so much?

I have always hated to run. Always. I’ll lift, I’ll sprint, whatever, I’ve never been a runner. This app makes me want to go out running. The missions are genuinely fun, and the story is written and delivered well enough to keep me wanting to find out what happens next. I even want to run longer because the longer I run, the more items I can find and the more I can grow the township. It’s coming to Android on June 14th, but you can get it now on iPhone from the iTunes store or the Zombies, Run! website for $7.99. It’s worth the price.

3. RunKeeper

RunKeeper Logo

RunKeeper. If you run, you should have it.

RunKeeper comes in at three almost just out of sheer usefulness. RunKeeper does an absolutely fantastic job of tracking your runs, walks, hikes, bike rides and just about every other exercise that can be tracked by GPS. It also has coaching available which you can set up manually, so implementing a Couch to 5k training regimen or doing rounds of Tabatas is no problem. It also keeps track of all of your data over time and lets you know when you’ve set personal records. Best of all it automatically syncs with Fitocracy and soon will sync with Zombies, Run! too.

Why do we love it so much?

It makes Fitocracy and Zombies, Run! complete with spot on GPS route tracking and automatic coaching programs to improve pacing or structure some interval training. It’s intuitive, convenient and even though it uses the GPS is pretty easy on the battery. You can pick it up on the iTunes store or on the RunKeeper website. The app itself is free – you can pay for a premium account but so far I haven’t found it necessary, the basic version is great as it is.

If you own a smartphone and you have any interest at all in fitness, do yourself a favor and go give these apps a try. All of them are fantastic at making exercise easy, rewarding and extremely fun.

Do you have any other fitness apps you absolutely love? Do you have any of these three? Tell us what you think in the comments!

Photo Credit: Matt’s Macintosh

The Four Zen States of Mind

Zen Circle 1 by Triratna Photos

The circle is a common representation of the idea of mushin.

As much as Caroline picks on me for being a Zen master and never getting stressed or concerned about anything, the fact is I am not one. Even so, that hasn’t stopped me from finding ways to apply Zen principles to my everyday life.

I’ve always had a love for the martial arts and a side passion for philosophy, Eastern, Western and everywhere in-between. I’ve found that the parts of philosophy I really love are the parts that you can directly apply to life. Maybe that’s just a reflection of me following Bruce Lee’s philosophies, who knows. Either way I think the real meat of philosophy is in practicalities, not pontificating or postulations. As a result I’ve collected four states of mind from Zen teachings and the martial arts world that you can work toward to make you a happier more effective person.

Shoshin

Shoshin (初心) is the first state of mind we’re going to talk about. Shoshin means “Beginner’s Mind” and is characterized by an attitude of eagerness and openness when beginning an endeavor. When you are in a state of shoshin you should be feeling enthusiastic, creative and above all optimistic. Think about a time when you were getting ready to start something new that you had always wanted to do. You were fired up and ready to go, you knew it would be great and you were open and ready to do or learn whatever it was you were about to start. That’s shoshin.

When can you use shoshin?

The most obvious use for assuming a state of shoshin would be whenever you’re about to start something new. Working to approach every new endeavor, even ones you may be nervous about or dreading, with an attitude of open eagerness helps to make most situations that you once thought were unpleasant much more enjoyable. One of the key aspects of shoshin is an absence of preconceptions and a general sense of optimism. When you are in a state of shoshin you shouldn’t be thinking too much about what you think is going to happen, you should just be eager to accept whatever comes and assured it will all be for the best.

This release of preconceptions and attitude of viewing everything with fresh eyes is one of shoshin’s most valuable qualities. You can work on placing yourself in a state of shoshin even when doing something you’ve done before to keep each experience fresh and to ensure that you aren’t making poor decisions based on preconceived biases. It also helps train you to keep a positive and eager outlook about everything that might come your way.

Fudoushin

Fudoushin (不動心 also Romanized as fudoshin) means “Immovable Mind”. This state of mind is characterized by a steadfast determination and absolute control over oneself. It should be noted that this doesn’t mean one in a state of fudoushin is being stubborn, or angry. Rather a person in fudoushin is calmly resolute and cannot be swayed, tempted or concerned. A man sitting peacefully in the eye of a tornado would be a good mental image to exemplify the idea of fudoushin.

When can I use fudoushin?

Fudoushin once cultivated can best be used in situations where you are under stress. These might be genuinely dangerous situations like a house fire or they may be fairly benevolent ones like car trouble or problems at work. The idea of achieving fudoushin in stressful situations is, I think, one of the quintessential stereotypes of the Zen master here. Most people picture the old monk reacting serenely in the face of extreme or mortal danger and that is essentially what you’re looking to emulate.

Now, I certainly hope you never find yourself in a situation where your life depends on you keeping a calm, collected head. Even so normal day to day life can be seriously stressful. A pursuit of fudoushin can go a long way to keeping you sane. You may never need to react calmly in a disaster, but being well versed in the art of taking a deep breath and letting the stress go could keep you from hurling your computer through the window when it crashes without saving your work.

Mushin

Mushin (無心) means “Without Mind” and it is very similar in practice to the Chinese Taoist principle of wei wuwei (爲無爲). Of all of the states of mind, I think not only is working toward mastery of mushin most important, it’s also the one most people have felt at some point in time. In sports circles, mushin is often referred to as “being in the zone”.

Mushin is characterized by a mind that is completely empty of all thoughts and is existing purely in the current moment. A mind in mushin is free from worry, anger, ego, fear or any other emotions. It does not plan, it merely acts. If you’ve ever been playing a sport and you got so into it you stopped thinking about what you were doing and just played, you’ve experienced mushin.

When can I use mushin?

Always. Honestly, I have yet to find any task where my performance was not improved by getting my head out of the way and just doing. Our thoughts wander, they bounce around through our heads and distract us, cause us to worry, cause us to over think things or become overconfident. When you quiet your mind and exist in the moment as an entity that has no concerns about the past or the future but is fully present and acts intuitively you can perform without distraction.

Beyond all of that worries, doubts, regrets and fears serve no purpose other than to cloud your judgement and make your life worse. By learning to live only in the current moment and let everything else go you can lead a much happier more peaceful life.

Zanshin

Zanshin (残心) literally translates to “Remaining Mind” and really has two parts. The first aspect of zanshin is a general and constant state of relaxed awareness or perceptiveness. This state means that although you’re not actively watching out for things you are constantly aware of your surroundings and situation. The second aspect of zanshin is a concept of follow through. In martial arts proper expression of zanshin is your actions and mental state after you have performed a technique or defeated your opponent.

When can I use zanshin?

The awareness aspect of zanshin is useful always, and can easily be cultivated along with mushin. In fact, learning to develop a state of mushin also helps cultivate zanshin as zanshin is best achieved by always being present in the moment and not letting your mind wander with distractions.

The awareness aspect of zanshin doesn’t have to just relate to your physical surroundings though. True zanshin means constant situational awareness. That means being present enough to notice when someone might be upset with you, or recognizing when your financial or career situation may need some improvement as well as being perceptive enough to identify the opportunities that arise to make positive improvements.

The follow through aspect of zanshin will also make all of your endeavors more successful. Proper follow through ensures that even if you fail at something you attempt, you can see the results of what you did and learn from those mistakes leading you to a success on your next attempt.

There are other states of consciousness, as well as various techniques to help train one to achieve them, in Zen Buddhism and in martial arts, but I think these four are the most powerful for improving people’s day to day lives. Do you have any others you would add or good ways to practice these? Leave a comment!

Photo Credit: Triratna Photos

Lessons from the Master: Be Like Water

Tranquility by Sean Rogers

Water is not only essential to life, it makes a pretty good role model.

“Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way round or through it. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves.” – Bruce Lee

Being like water is a fairly common goal within the world of martial arts, regardless of style. Students of everything from gong fu to karate to muay thai have sought to improve themselves by emulating its fluidity, force and formlessness. Not only martial artists can learn lessons from it though. So what does it mean to be like water, and how can doing so help improve our lives?

Formlessness

Another quote by Bruce Lee that’s often tossed around is this one:

“Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water my friend.” – Bruce Lee

Technically that was him reciting lines he wrote for his role on the TV show Longstreet, but I think it still reflects both his thoughts on the matter and an essential property of water that can seriously help people in their day to day lives.

Water, as he says, is shapeless. It doesn’t fight when it’s put into a new container, instead it adapts and changes to perfectly fit its new home. If an object is dropped into the water it doesn’t fight back it just moves out of the way and swallows it up. This formlessness and adaptability is a quality that everyone should strive to achieve.

So how are some ways we can practice this attitude? Think of all the times you’ve been forced into a new situation. Maybe it’s something benign like going to an unfamiliar coffee shop or maybe it’s something more serious like losing your job. What have your reactions been like?

For most people change, no matter how small, is at the very least uncomfortable if not completely terrifying. The natural reaction when people are forced into a new situation is to flee or to fight to get back to the way things were. Instead, try to be more like water. Let go of all that energy you’re wasting trying to cling to the old way things were and let yourself reshape to fit your new surroundings.

The key to achieving water-like adaptation to new situations is understanding the concept of formlessness. The reason water doesn’t fight when it’s placed into a new environment is because water doesn’t have it’s own form. There is no one ‘shape’ of water, it assumes the shape of whatever its container is.

The best way to achieve a similar lack of form is to work on letting go of your self-created identity. I’m not saying you should completely abandon your personality, but rather that you should come to accept yourself as a malleable being. Once you understand that, like water, your defining aspect is that you are constantly changing you can easily adapt to any new situations that may arise.

Fluidity

Ok, I understand that fluidity and formlessness are essentially the same thing since formlessness is a general physical property of all fluids, but bear with me here because fluidity as a concept for our purposes has a slightly more nuanced meaning that separates it out.

When water is flowing, like in a stream or a river, it’s difficult to stop. You can try and push it back but it will slip around you and continue on its way. Like all currents it finds the path of least resistance automatically and follows it without effort or hesitation. If there is even the slightest crack or weakness it will find its way through and keep going.

You can apply this principle to your own life through the practice of wei wuwei (爲無爲) or action without action also sometimes referred to as effortless action. The idea of wei wuwei is central to Taoism and is characterized by releasing conscious control of your actions over to the flow of the infinite Tao.

In more Western terms – go with the flow.

As I said this may sound a lot like the above point of adapting to your surroundings but it’s slightly different. Adapting to your surroundings means changing yourself to become as comfortable as possible in the situation that has presented itself to you. Being fluid, or practicing wei wuwei, deals more with how you deal with obstacles.

Traceurs will understand this concept well. The idea is that when faced with an obstacle you react instantly and naturally taking the path of least resistance around it and moving on. Rather than slam into obstacles you let the natural order of things take its course as you glide around them.

Here obstacles doesn’t necessarily mean physical things. These can be any blocks to your progress tangible or not. When manifested into your general attitude it can also be an effective way to overcome mental blocks. When you hit a block in your thinking or creativity don’t dwell on the problem, just accept that its there and move on.

Dealing with problems this way is not only more effective, it keeps stress to a minimum as well.

There are likely other lessons that you could learn and apply from observing the properties of water, the way when it’s focused into a single stream it can cut through steel, the way a tiny trickle of it can dig out the entire Grand Canyon given enough time or maybe the way it’s nearly incompressible. Can you think of any other good additions? Leave a comment and share them!

Photo Credit: Sean Rogers

Honorbound Published on Kindle and Nook

Honorbound by Adam Wik

One of my short stories has recently been published on the Kindle and Nook and is currently only 99 cents. We’ve got more in the works, but the publishing experience has taught me a lot. Some posts will be coming soon detailing the whole process and explaining how you can take advantage of it to get your own work published. In the meantime, here’s a little excerpt from Honorbound

Honorbound

© 2012 Cairn Publishing All Rights Reserved

The first time you kill someone is the hardest. At least, it was for me. I don’t mean like in videogames and things. That’s easy. That’s pretend. I mean blood on your hands. Spilled guts. I mean murder. After the first one, it gets a lot easier.

I remember the first time I saw the sword. Uncle Jim had brought me to some charity estate auction. The hall it was in was dusty and cramped. There must have been at least a hundred people there, but it felt like a thousand. The a/c was out and the August sun had turned the room into a sauna.

“So who was this guy?” I asked. They were wheeling off an old wood trunk, just won by a portly man in the front whose fervent fanning with an auction paddle was failing to stop the sweat stain spreading over his chest.

“Some old rich guy,” Jim said. “Paper said he was an importer, bought and sold rare stuff from around the world.”

So far it had all looked like junk to me. “What happened to him?”

“No one heard from him at his office for a few days and started to get worried. One of his partners went over to check on him and found him dead.” He grinned his big stupid grin. “Found him in his living room. Decapitated. Police said it wasn’t foul play either. He had a big axe mounted over his fireplace, he must’ve been looking for something in there or cleaning it out and the mountings broke. Whack.” He chopped his wrist with his paddle. “Cut his head clean off. How unlucky was that?”

I didn’t have time to comment before they brought the next item out for auction.

“This is the last item for sale today,” the auctioneer called, “and the very last item the late Mr. Stamford added to his collection, acquired only a week before his passing — a beautiful antique katana from Japan.”

He lied. It wasn’t beautiful. Sunsets are beautiful. Flowers are beautiful. The sword was more. It was exquisite. Perfect. The handle was bound tight in gray ray’s skin leading to a jet black guard. The scabbard was two feet of sleek, brilliant emerald. It can’t be adequately described. It was like every gift I had ever wanted compressed into one glorious object. The auction hall, the heat, the sweaty crowd, it all faded. There was only the sword.

I’m not sure when the bidding started, but my uncle must have read my face. He raised his paddle.

“Two hundred dollars.”

I tore my eyes from the sword to gape at him. “What are you doing?”

Someone called out another number and Jim raised his paddle in turn.

“Three hundred fifty dollars.” He turned back to me. “I wasn’t going to get anything, but I missed your birthday so… call it a late present.”

The bidding went back and forth. I was petrified, certain my uncle would be outbid, but finally the others fell silent. The auctioneer banged his gavel. The sword was mine.

I could have screamed. I could’ve jumped up and down and hugged Uncle Jim and screamed, but I didn’t. That would have interrupted the auction. Someone else did that for me.

No sooner had Uncle Jim been declared the winner when the doors to the hall slammed open and a man tore in. The herd shuffled around to see who had disturbed their proceedings as the intruder raced to the stage, shouting at the top of his lungs.

“Not the sword!”

His tweed suit was wrinkled and worn, it looked like he’d been sleeping in it. His disheveled hair matched the wild look in his eyes.

“There will be blood! It’s cursed! You can’t sell it!”

Like most people with good advice, the crowd took him for a madman.

“I’m sorry, Sir.” The auctioneer glanced at the guards on the side of the stage. “This item has already been sold to the gentleman in the blue cap. Bidding is now closed.”

“I don’t want to buy it, I want it destroyed!”

The man tried to dash onto the stage but the guards were too quick. Each took an arm and began to drag the madman kicking and shouting to the doors. As he was dragged past our row he saw Uncle Jim’s cap.

“Destroy it! Don’t draw the sword! Don’t draw it! It’s cursed!”

He jerked one arm free and pulled his wallet from his pocket. Before the guard could catch him he slipped a card out, crumpled it in his fist and threw it at us. Still shouting he was dragged from the room and the doors slammed shut behind him.

The quiet lasted only a second before the hall filled with murmurs. It took the auctioneer’s gavel several slams to silence the crowd and declare the auction finished. As Uncle Jim and I stood to go claim my present I noticed the crumpled ball at my feet. I snatched it up before it was lost in the shuffle and slipped it into my pocket. I’m still not sure why.

It probably only took ten minutes for Jim to write a check and claim the sword, but it felt like hours before we had it. He carried it to the car, and only once we were in and on our way did he finally let me hold it.

“Your mom’s gonna kill me,” he said. “Let me take it in when we get there and talk to her first. Tell her it’s just for decoration, and don’t ever take it out when she’s around.” He gave me a stern look. “Most of all be careful with that thing. If you cut yourself or do something stupid I’m never gonna hear the end of it.”

I promised him he didn’t need to worry. I wasn’t stupid. I wouldn’t do anything to risk having it taken away from me, and I’d definitely never hurt anyone with it.

How wrong I was.

You can get Honorbound for Kindle or get it for the Nook for only 99 cents.

You can also keep up to date on all the other things we’ve got in the works to be published by visiting my Amazon author page.